Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
She Quit

She Quit

Newsletter 2022-09-26

I’ve often said the last worthwhile birthday milestone is turning twenty-one, but that’s a lie. It’s really hitting retirement age. At twenty-one, you drink to cope with the depressing reality that you have 40 years of work ahead of you. But in your sixties (or seventies or eighties, depending on just how much of your 401(k) you invested in Beanie Babies), you no longer have a reason to drink because your career is done. Retirees say every day is a Saturday. That’s supposed to make it seem appealing, but it sounds terrible to me since that’s the day I have to drive kids to soccer games in three different time slots. The weekend lifestyle isn’t an issue for retirees, though. Hitting retirement age means the main source of all life’s problems, gainful employment, is finally defeated for good. It would be the greatest moment in anyone’s existence were it not for the fact that the next and final milestone, death, is right behind it. Retirement is the best phase but also the one when it’s the least fun to plan ahead. The last tiny home you ever buy will be six feet underground.

My mother-in-law, Delilah, recently retired after decades as a bank teller. We threw her a surprise party over the weekend, although I’m not sure how much of a surprise it was. We announced our visit in advance, but we blindsided her with the decorated poster boards and extra snacks. We’re a wild bunch. The posters were giant homemade cards courtesy of my kids, all of whom now know how to spell “retirement,” even if they don’t entirely understand the concept. They can’t wrap their heads around the idea of working for an entire lifetime just so they can take it easy at the end. They’re more focused on being lazy right now.

I’m not sure what Delilah will do now that she’s retired. My father-in-law, Bob, retired earlier this year. He used his newfound free time to do pro bono home improvement projects for friends and family members. It was like, if instead of miracles, Jesus traveled around performing free carpentry. Unfortunately for my renovation budget, Bob was recently slowed down by a medical procedure. He’s now had to resort to new, more sedentary backup hobbies. A year ago, he didn’t even know pop culture existed, but now he’s the world’s foremost expert on celebrity gossip. Some people watch birds. He watches famous people publicly implode. The dumpster fires keep him warm at night. He also plays Call of Duty on Xbox. He’s a God-fearing man who spends more time in church than the pope, but he also regularly knifes n00bs in the back. If only those fourteen-year-olds knew they were getting pwned by somebody’s grandpa. I’ve got to teach him to trash talk.

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I can’t see Delilah adopting any of Bob’s new retirement hobbies. Then again, they have cultivated one joint activity in recent years. Like most healthy marriages, their quality time together is mainly just streaming shows. Conversation is a one-way road to divorce. They don’t watch Game of Thrones or Stranger Things. Their entertainment of choice is Turkish TV dramas. To be clear, neither of them is Turkish. The most foreign place Bob has ever visited is New Jersey. The two of them sit in silence, listening to a language they don’t understand and reading subtitles. If they run out of new Turkish shows, they’ll watch one in Spanish or some other tongue they don’t speak. The foreign language part is key. That takes it from mindless entertainment to a sophisticated cultural experience. With subtitles, you’re basically reading a book. Bob has tried to get me to watch some of his shows, but I always refuse on principle. If I’m staring at the text at the bottom of the screen, I can’t also scroll on my phone.

man and woman sitting on bench in front of beach

I joked earlier about the proximity of retirement to death, but truthfully, Delilah and Bob both have decades of watching Turkish dramas ahead of them. Bob’s parents lived well into their nineties, and Delilah’s dad is still going strong. Imagine living long enough to see your youngest daughter retire. I feel old when I remember I have a kid almost in high school. They say that people live longer when they have a sense of purpose, but I suspect that’s a lie told by recruiters to get more old people to be greeters at Walmart. Actually, I don’t think Walmart has greeters anymore, which is a relief. Having to say, “Hi,” to someone at the entrance was an overwhelming social burden. I suspect living long into retirement has less to do with having a reason to wake up and more to do with being content with not having one. If the only way you can value yourself is if you’re creating value for a company, you’ll be very unhappy in retirement. It’s corporate Stockholm Syndrome. My entire purpose is to not have a purpose. I’ll never die.

I could see how retirement could get boring. How much you enjoy your free time depends directly on how you spend your time when you’re not free. If every day is a soccer-less Saturday, it would be easy to take it for granted. I experienced the best Saturdays of my life when I was at the job I hated the most. My stint as a newspaper reporter was as brief as it was undistinguished. My only goal was to someday get my own column and write jokes. In the meantime, I had to actually report the news, which was a serious drawback I somehow never considered when picking a major in college. I don’t mind reading the news, but I hate writing it, mainly because news is about people and people are the worst. Someone was always furious about something, and when I wrote about them, they became furious at me, too. Anger is an unlimited resource. And that’s why, even to this day, I don’t read the comments on Facebook.

Just over a year into what was supposed to be a lifelong career, I abandoned journalism forever, and in dramatic fashion, too. I told the full story in How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means): Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source. I not only burned my bridges but also nuked them from orbit. While my year of journalism had some of my lowest lows, it also had my highest highs. Not the good kind from drugs, but the cheap kind from life. On weekdays, I used to fantasize about getting hit by a truck. A few weeks in the hospital would have been better than covering yet another meeting where people were outraged the city was trying to build a fire station. The weekends, by comparison, were absolutely magical. Every Saturday was like Christmas morning, my birthday, and a surprise snow day all rolled into one. I haven’t experienced anything like it since. I recommend taking a job you hate, if only for a little while, so that for two beautiful days a week, you can feel true, transcendent jubilation. Today, weekends are all right. They’re not that different from weekdays because work no longer makes me hate my life. I suspect how much you enjoy retirement depends on how bad your last job was. Make your last employer the worst one so your twilight years feel like paradise by comparison. Maybe your local newspaper is hiring.

I don’t think either Bob or Delilah ever hated their jobs, which is why they both did them for so long. I’m more sure about my parents. They’re ten years younger than Lola’s mom and dad, so they have roughly another decade of work ahead of them. My dad is going to enjoy retirement very much. In fact, after his final day of work, his heart might explode from joy. That’s the real reason some people die right away in retirement. Assuming he survives the initial cardiac event, I’m not sure what my dad will do with his newfound free time. He doesn’t have many hobbies, and he doesn’t have the patience for subtitles. His main interest, besides not going into work, is Bigfoot. Maybe he’ll be the guy to finally find him. On second thought, that sounds like it would take a lot of camping. He could be the guy who watches the show about the guy who ultimately finds him. Better yet, he could stop taking care of his personal hygiene and get mistaken for Bigfoot. Not many people get to use their retirement to become a legend.

As for my mom, I doubt she’ll ever truly retire. Her main hobby is finding new jobs to do in her “free” time. In addition to her full-time day job, she’s also the leading freelance grocery delivery driver for her entire city as well as a shelf stocker for multiple vendors. A day off work for her is just a day to work somewhere else. Then again, I say that as I write this newsletter on a Sunday. Productivity isn’t a character trait; it’s a family curse. Nobody knows exactly how many jobs my mom has, but it’s a lot. She won’t even quit when cornered by a coyote. In fact, she still delivers to the house where that story happened. If a rabid animal can’t make her stop, what chance does old age have? She’ll still be delivering groceries in her wheelchair.

My wife Lola, by contrast, plans to retire eventually. She talks all the time about the crafting projects she’d like to do “someday.” Presumably, she means after the kids move out and she resigns her job and the sun explodes and consumes the earth. Lola is extremely dedicated to the lab where she works, so I can’t see her giving it up easily. When, after six or seven decades of faithful service, someone at the company tries to force her into retirement, I imagine she’ll fight them off with her cane. Don’t underestimate her. She developed sword fighting skills sparring with the kids. Outside of her hardcore science job, Lola is quite creative. She loves decorating cakes and cupcakes. If she somehow accidentally finds herself retired, she could bake for fun or handle custom orders from home. She doesn’t have to commercialize it. She could always just bake elaborate cakes for me. I’d sacrifice my no-sugar diet for her sake. Not all heroes wear capes, but they do have cavities.

As for me, I don’t plan to ever fully retire. For one thing, we have four daughters. I’m not sure we can afford for Lola and me to both stop working, no matter how far into the future we look. Tradition says we have to pay for all four weddings, but practicality says I need to convince all four kids to elope. Short of that, I’ve offered to pay for a few kegs and a tent in a parking lot for a single group wedding. For whatever reason, none of the girls took me up on that one. I might be getting ahead of myself. If I’m lucky, none of them will get married, or they’ll have modest, progressive weddings they pay for themselves. For Catholics, the real wedding is the reception anyway, and I’m more than happy to pay for a small group of people to get drunk at my house. Bottom shelf vodka on me.

Besides weddings, there’s also college, but I’ve been telling the kids since the day they were born that I’m not going to pay for that. They didn’t realize the sweet baby talk I said to them when they were infants was actually a legally binding agreement. My parents didn’t save any money for college for their seven kids, and Lola’s parents didn’t set anything aside for their four. That’s a proud tradition of financial neglect I’m eager to continue. I figure it will motivate my kids to try harder for scholarships and make them think twice before they go $200,000 in debt for a degree in something absurd, like puppetry arts or English.

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In theory, if the girls handle college themselves and stay single, I could retire, but not in a traditional sense. I’m typing this newsletter with one hand covered in bandages, so I can’t imagine something as minor as getting older will stop me from writing. Ideally, I’d like to cut back from having two careers to just one, with my day job finally fading off into the sunset. My mom would look down on me for only having one job at a time, but it’s my life and I’m going to live it. If my next book or this Substack thing takes off, that could actually happen by the time the last of the girls leave for college. And if not, there’s always the lottery. Somebody has to win, and I could rob that person.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. I hope a few of you spent your precious retirement reading this.


Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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